I’ve just finished reading a book about what birds think. About migrating, mating, nesting, eating, and feeding. Even learning to fly. Interesting, but it never addressed the more important question: what do birds think about us? That’s what made Hitchcock’s masterpiece The Birds so scary. The birds had thought about us a lot and concluded they’d had enough.
That was fiction, of course, but birds really are troubled by our behavior. They think we think anything wild is just taking up valuable space and resources, at best worthless and at worst a threat to national security. The only valuable tree is lumber; the only worthwhile beach has a hotel and golf course on it; and the only good seed is one that’s lab-altered, coated with pesticide, and patented.
Well, that’s what birds write me.
Birds can write? Absolutely. There are keyboards everywhere now. Crows and ravens can steal a cell phone in a second, and they’re very smart birds. I get fan mail from them quite often, when they’re not playing Angry Birds. Red-tailed hawks like my movies too. One even sent me a selfie. And an idea for a new bumper sticker.
I ♥ Birds
– Freddy Krueger
Red-tails have a wicked sense of humor.
I also hear from chickens. Hens, mostly, free-rangers here on the Vineyard with relatives doing time in distant factory farms. They hop through an open window when the farmer isn’t looking and peck out flamer emails, outraged that so many humans think the only good chicken is a white one, grown quickly and cheaply (thanks to genetic manipulation and industrial farms) and sold as the newer-than-new white meat. “What do humans want us unpatented chickens to do?” one clucked. “Just get out of your way and go extinct?” I assured her that everybody on Martha’s Vineyard loves real chickens, and that only a tiny fraction of the population thinks of animals as commodities or products. She never wrote back.
It’s hard convincing a bird of anything in words. They’re musicians. All they listen to is Coltrane and the planet. And they’re sure they know better.
And maybe they do.
I was talking to a guy at a Vineyard cocktail party recently, and the subject of closed-off beaches came up. You know, during piping plover nesting season. His neck turned red and a killer look snapped into his eyes. He liked driving his car on the beach any time he felt like it. The closures were necessary, I tried to explain, because plover nests are nothing more than tiny depressions in the sand, and the chicks are incredibly well camouflaged and instinctively freeze in place when threatened. They’re stupid then, the guy said. If they can’t evolve to get smarter, maybe they deserve to go extinct.
Well, extinction can be contagious. We’re in the biggest species die-off since the age of the dinosaurs. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss – the wild birds of the twenty-first century live on a mine field. And if they’re not out there eating the bugs, spreading the seeds, germinating the flowers, and generally making our lives brighter, we could be next.
So what to do?
Help them out a little bit. If you’re putting in a garden, put in some native plants, rather than stuff they can’t use imported from Holland or China. Or have a water feature where they can get a drink and freshen up. And leave some brush where they can hide when the Cooper’s hawk dive-bombs the feeder. You do have a feeder, don’t you? And one last thing: keep kitty in the house. Cats are an introduced species and birds have few protections against them. Any idea how many U.S. birds are killed by cats in any given year? As many as 3.7 billion. Yep, billion with a b.
The fact is, we leave more than a carbon footprint on this planet. We leave a footprint on wildness itself, and it’s a big one. No bird can deal with what we’ve done to the environment in just a few centuries. As a wise owl I met in Hooters once said, evolution is slow. Humanity is a speeding bullet.
This article is part of an eight-part series Wes Craven produced for Martha's Vineyard Magazine. Click here to read the entire saga of the filmmaker’s adventures with his avian neighbors.